January often represents peak season for colds and influenza. Colder temperatures and reduced humidity levels drive most people indoors and promote the easy spread of these viral illnesses.
Each year, viral respiratory illness affects tens of millions of Americans, resulting in school absences, lost workdays and substantial suffering. In the case of influenza virus, upward of 30,000 deaths annually may result, mostly from complications among the elderly and those with chronic disease. Young children are especially susceptible.
This year’s predominant influenza virus is a variant of the 2009 H1N1 virus that caused the first declared global-flu pandemic in many years. Yet, from year to year, the virus mutates, prompting the need for a preventive annual-flu vaccine.
Although influenza seems to be peaking in our area, it may remain active for months to come. For those who remain unvaccinated, it’s not too late.
Symptoms of the common cold often include runny nose, congestion, sneezing, sore throat and cough. In addition to these symptoms, influenza virus may cause high fever, fatigue and muscle aches. The typical duration of symptoms for viral-respiratory illness is less than seven to 10 days, and most symptoms gradually improve as the immune system fights the infection.
Secondary bacterial illness may occur in the setting of viral infection; examples include bacterial sinusitis, ear infection and pneumonia. Signs of secondary-bacterial infection may include sudden worsening of symptoms, particularly after initial improvement, recurrence of fever or new symptoms such as breathing difficulty. Failure of symptoms to improve or resolve after 10 to 14 days may raise suspicion of bacterial infection. Antibiotics provide no benefit for viral illness.
For those with onset of influenza virus symptoms who are at highest risk of complicated illness, antiviral medication may be recommended. High-risk people include those with chronic disease, morbid obesity, those with immune compromising conditions or medications, the elderly, children younger than 2 years, pregnant women and those of Native American or Alaska Native descent.
Antiviral medication is most helpful for high-risk people with flu who seek care within 48 hours of symptom onset.
For most otherwise healthy people, the best treatment strategy is good, old-fashioned rest. Maintaining adequate hydration with frequent fluid intake can reduce severity of some symptoms.
Preventing the spread of viral-respiratory illness is possible through practice of good hygiene. Hands should be ideally kept away from the face (the portal of entry for most such illnesses) and should be regularly cleaned with warm soapy water or alcohol-based hand sanitizer, like that which is used in hospitals and medical clinics.
Covering a cough or sneeze and remaining home when sick with fever can further reduce spread.
Short-term, judicious use of over-the-counter medications may provide symptomatic relief. If suffering from chronic disease, taking prescription medications or if symptoms persist or worsen, it would be wise to consult a health-care provider.
Dr. Matthew A. Clark is a board-certified physician in internal medicine and pediatrics practicing at the Ute Mountain Ute Health Center in Towaoc.